Alexander Nevski Cathedral, Sofia.
A Beautiful Name for an Unheralded City
Visiting Sofia, Bulgaria takes a commitment if you're traveling from a "touristy" country. From Rome, you can take the train to Bari, a ferry to Patras, Greece, a transfer to Athens and then about 13-hours via trains up from Athens. Or how about a 22-hour overnight train from Vienna? This isn't to put you off. In fact, traveling to this Balkan gem is the perfect opportunity to really get to know train travel in Europe. This is still a much less expensive region to travel through – cheaper than the rest of Western Europe.
There is more than a currency difference here. Try and ask a Bulgarian conductor, "Is this the train to Sofia?" and be answered with a shake of the head. "No" means "Yes." A nod means "no." Then there's the Cyrillic alphabet. Most signs still use it despite a thrust toward westernization. An Internet study-up beforehand couldn't hurt.
There is a real ethnic diversity here, and it has its hand in much of the Sofia's sound and surroundings. The large Turkish contingency has influenced both the culture and music (although not when competing in Eurovision – that sound is solely Bulgarian. Better luck next year.) The architecture is a unique blend of Western and European styles, with a number of well preserved building dating back to the Roman and Byzantine period. But this is one of the youngest capitals on the Continent, and so much of the city's buildings date only from the 18th and 19th centuries.
To see how Bulgarians do modern, check out the futuristic National Palace of Culture in the city center. Home to concerts, movies, fairs and festivals, the palace won second-place at the 2010 APEX awards for "Best Convention Center." At the National Gallery – the Balkans' largest museum housed in a former Royal Palace – scour over 50,000 pieces of Bulgarian art. The oldest building in Sofia dates to the 4th century – the Sveta Sofia church.
The rest of Bulgaria is just as beautiful. Take a day trip to the 1000-year-old Rila Monastery. For skiing in winter and hiking in summer, Mount Vitosha. With a Eurail Bulgaria Pass sunbathe on the Black Sea in the coastal towns of Varna and Burgas or visit the cultural city of Plovdiv with it's 2nd century Roman Ancient Theater. The trains aren't lightning fast, but they sure are easier to navigate than trying to read cryptic signs or taking a very crowded bus. Upgrades are in the works, and many InterCity rails feature brand new trains built in Germany.
Want to see more of the region? Be a true explorer with a Balkan Flexipass – your track to the cradle of European civilization. Visit Serbia-Montenegro, Macedonia, Romania, Turkey, Greece as well as Bulgaria. Each location a touchstone of archaeological and cultural magnificence.
Sofia is a city where you don't come to check things off your "must-see" list. You've already done that. This is travel for the wonderer and the wanderer. Come have a coffee with a boisterous Bulgarian, and talk about how you arrived from Istanbul on a 12 and 1/2-hour night train.
Contributed by: Adam, Travel Consultant for Rail Europe